Text and photographs by Lin Dihuan
Below the modern skyline of almost every Chinese city hides an ancient street preserved amongst the skyscrapers. Strolling down such a street usually inspires nostalgic emotions that reach straight to the city’s soul. In the massive city of Chongqing, Shibati (literally “Eighteen Terraces”) Street serves as an irreplaceable link to yesteryear.
Although it’s undoubtedly a time-honored thoroughfare, Shibati isn’t quite the tourist draw one might expect because of its lack of magnificent ancient architecture or former residences of historic figures. Nonetheless, it serves as an important landmark for the people of Chongqing, not only for its preservation of the city’s history, but also unparalleled ability to showcase genuine traditional lifestyles of the local common man.
Because of its position on a hillside, Chongqing has long been nicknamed “mountain city,” but it can be divided into two parts: the upper side draping the mountain and the lower embracing the Yangtze River. A common old saying, “It’s an arduous journey between the upper and lower parts,” attests to the city’s transportation pains in ancient times. Before the days of highways, Shibati was the lone passage linking the two sections. Viewed from the foot of the mountain, the street appears like a giant staircase linking the mountaintop commercial areas with the riverside districts.
Despite its past importance, today’s Shibati is easy to miss amidst all the modern buildings. Its entrance is camouflaged by a bustling farmer’s market. However, locating the zigzagging stone stairway is worth the effort, and after a few steps, a time machine whisks visitors back to the days of shabby teahouses, book rental cabins, and kitchens shared between several households. For most of 21st-century China, such things can only be seen in old movies.
Historically, the area around Huguang Guildhall served as Chongqing’s political center, housing aristocrats and city officials. Shibati, however, served as an agricultural marketplace, so the majority of its residents belonged to the lower classes.